Small town, big culture
Kirk Robertson and Valerie Serpa have been instrumental in putting Fallon on Nevada’s artistic map
“Urban cowboy” is not quite the right term. Kirk Robertson pushes that style moniker all the way into practically uncharted territory; it’s more like Manhattan Cowboy. Kirk, a tall, slim, gentlemanly 58-year-old, usually sporting black pants, black dress jacket and a very Nevada mustache, lives in Fallon and keeps his finger on the outside world’s pulse.
Valerie Serpa, his wife, who’s 51, is something of a cowgirl by birth—she descends from a long line of Fallon ranchers and lives on Serpa Place—but in terms of fashion, she’s all city girl. Possibly the most stylish person of any age in rural Nevada, she wears big earrings, big, curly hair with a single white streak, and a big, gracious Hollywood smile. She gets to the gym early in the morning and wears spiky boots in the evening.
The two Fallon residents are breaking stereotypes of what small-town culture is all about. They’re the proud parents of a nearly 20-year project whose culmination (so far, anyway) is the transformation of the once-condemned 1914 Oats Park School into the shiny new Oats Park Arts Center. It’s an elegant but welcoming venue whose quality and breadth of programming rival anyone’s anywhere.
Facilities include a visual-arts gallery, a 350-seat theater and an Old-West-meets-urban-café-style bar.
Want to talk about post-performance-artist multi-media maven Laurie Anderson’s current tour? Want to know more about semi-obscure, Eastern-European/American-bluegrass-influenced musical acts like Tin Hat Trio or 2 Foot Yard? Go to Fallon and find Kirk and Valerie.
A chance encounter
It all began in 1985, when a group of Fallon residents decided to form an arts council for their mostly rural county. Right about that same time, Kirk and Valerie became acquainted when he bought a plane ticket from the Fallon travel agency where she was working.
As one thing led to another on a personal level, they lent their talents to the arts council. Valerie, who’d studied art history at the University of Nevada, Reno, became active in the group’s fledgling performing arts series and soon began organizing events. Kirk, who had worked for the Nevada State Council on the Arts (now called the Nevada Arts Council) and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, helped things get off the ground by assisting with bylaws and initial fundraising.
In 1986, the group officially became the Churchill County Arts Council, a private, nonprofit organization with a mission: “to enrich the cultural and social life of our community by providing opportunities to experience the arts on a variety of levels.”
The council hired Valerie as executive director and Kirk as program coordinator. They’re the only employees, but they’re backed by the inspiration and elbow grease of nine enthusiastic board members.
The council began kicking around ideas on how to accommodate the growing performing arts series. One member, Pat Getto, was inspired by something she saw on a trip to Washington, D.C.: a torpedo factory that had been converted to art studios. Back in Fallon, Pat’s observation evolved into a plan to convert an existing structure, the long-empty 1914 Oats Park School, instead of building an arts facility from the ground up.
Renovation plans officially got underway in the early 1990s, under the guidance of Southern California architect John von Szeliski. It turned out that renovating a historic structure—especially one that sparked decades-old memories of third-grade arithmetic and running around on the playground—resonated emotionally with people in the community. The old school and its new purpose attracted all kinds of hands and minds to the project in addition to those who were initially in it for the art.
Ten years and $3.5 million later, the Arts Council opened its Oats Park Arts Center with back-to-back concerts on Valentine’s Day weekend, 2003. Country-western singer Heather Miles and Chicago jazz singer Patricia Barber each packed the house.
Oasis in the desert
By now, you are likely wondering the same thing everyone is wondering: “Why Fallon?” It’s the million-dollar question. Kirk and Valerie hear it all the time.
“Why not?” they answer.
No, really, why Fallon? The place isn’t without a few negative connotations, and it had no history of attracting steady flows of art-seekers on Friday nights. Why build a meticulously designed, beautifully polished arts center in the middle of a small town best known for its leukemia cluster? Why host the paintings of nationally celebrated artists in a museum-like gallery 65 miles from the nearest large urban area, where the economy leans on a Naval air station and agriculture? Why spend a decade raising millions of dollars to fortify an arts council in a county of 25,000 people, especially when you’ve already got a plateful of writing and editing jobs (if you’re Kirk) and art history classes to teach (if you’re Valerie)? Why import musicians from Los Angeles, Mali, Madagascar and Romania to play in a town whose nightlife is dominated by casinos and historic watering holes like the Overland Hotel?
Once you’ve decided you’re going to tackle a project this big and actually gotten it underway; once your community is hooked on the idea of doing something cool with that earthquake-damaged school building that’s been sitting there rotting for years; once you’ve ascended to a first-class level of dreamerdom from which there are no returns … well, hey, why the hell not Fallon?
“Valerie’s a Fallon native, so she’s always been here, and I’ve been here since 1975, so it just seemed logical that if you’re going to try to provide people with these experiences in the arts, that you should do it where you live,” Kirk explains.
This advanced testing of the if-you-build-it-they-will-come theory seems to have yielded the desired results. Kirk reports that when zydeco accordionist Queen Ida came to town to perform the arts council’s first concert in the mid-'80s, “people jumped at the chance.” Now, the folks of Fallon regularly dress up (or not; it’s pretty much come-as-you-are) and turn out for art receptions and performances. There are always Reno- and Carson City-area contingents as well. The crowds are enthusiastic and curious.
School of thought
Downtown Fallon is a neighborhood with pockets of Old West charm, shady blocks and smallish, mid-20th-century houses. The Oats Park Arts Center is situated just off the main drag, framed by the lawn (and baseball field) of Oats Park. The building’s brick exterior, though spruced up, still has that distinct, century-old-grammar-school look, with a peaked roof and tall, neo-classical arch over the front door. (The building made the state and national registers of historic places in 1990.)
Enter the arts center, and the atmosphere is half-school, half-museum, with huge, bowl-shaped chandeliers and shiny wood floors. Blueprints and historic photos of the building line the walls in contemporary steel frames. (One photo shows 38 young students in a classroom, eagerly looking forward with hands folded on their desks.) Original fire-fighting equipment hangs above the newer, up-to-code stuff, and long porcelain water fountains still work. A big clay X called “Desert Cross,” by American ceramics superhero John Mason—who grew up in Hazen, right outside Fallon—is spot-lit and tucked into its own comfortable nook. The lobby’s spare-but-rich design strategy invites non-threatening, grade-A mingling. One evening, a reception table with snacks featured dips from at least three countries.
The Classroom Gallery consists of two adjacent classrooms. High ceilings give the rooms an airy feel, and carefully controlled track lighting (with no windows, therefore no unpredictable changes of atmosphere) gives the gallery a museum-like atmosphere. Unlike many museums, however, there’s just enough wall space to do justice to a large body of artwork but not enough to wear you out. Ferndale, Calif., painter Emily Silver’s experimental, landscape-based watercolors are spread (until Feb. 20) throughout the gallery in groups of three and four and just one, tracing the iterations of her ideas about land and form, following her creative process through different sizes and arrangements.
Right across the hall, the art center’s Art Bar is anchored stylistically by a long, wood bar, circa way-back-when, and sleek, black tables and chairs, circa any major art museum’s café right now. A stuffed cow head hangs near the high ceilings, surveying little baskets of Japanese crackers on top of the bar and the collection of antique-looking glasses and ephemera behind it. Irish beers flow from the taps. Elegant purple flowers stand in vases, conversations break out about things like left-footed surfing, and bartenders mix up precociously named refreshments like the “Yukon Dew Me.”
Down the hall, the Barclay Theater, with small balconies for box seating and deep-red stage curtains, inches toward lavishness but stays comfortable. Kirk reports that performers like the theater’s atmosphere and size, and the arts center routinely receives phone calls from inquiring performers who’ve heard it’s a good place to put on a show. A couple weeks ago, Los Angeles roots-country singer Grey De Lisle wondered aloud if anyone thought she’d been expecting to show up in a small town and play at a gymnasium.
“No,” she said from the stage, “word’s out in the folk community that Fallon, Nevada, [is] a great place to play.”
State of the art
The arts center’s exhibits, musical acts and other live shows sample a wide range of creative activity. The shows often have added programs to enhance the viewers’ experiences of the art.
Back in November, Montana artist Mary Ann Bonjorni (formerly of both Reno and Las Vegas) spoke to students and the public at Fallon’s Western Nevada Community College branch. The college’s art exhibition space sometimes serves as the Oats Park Arts Center’s satellite gallery, and in this case Bonjorni’s large paintings filled both venues.
Her artwork covers the historical and psychological territory referred to as “the myths of the West.” It includes likenesses of John Wayne, Jesus and Elvis all in a row and objects like stuffed goat heads or picture frames stacked and glued together. The artist’s openness and sense of humor during her slide show made the complicated topic more accessible.
In the theater, Grey De Lisle recently took the stage barefoot and anachronistic in a red gingham dress, playing an autoharp. Her long, dark, 19th-century-styled hair and 1940s-era microphone beckoned the audience back a few decades. De Lisle sang mostly original songs that sounded vintage, and they were consistently gut-wrenching and wonderful, but she outdid herself with a floaty, warm, ultra-melodic cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” She interacted with the audience after the performance, signing autographs and chatting with fans.
The extra programs usually involve some kind of direct conversation between artists and audience. “Lecture” is too boring a word for Mary Ann Bonjorni’s animated talk and Q&A. “Educational workshops” is even more misleading when you are describing afternoon get-togethers at which musical acts like the Django Reinhardt-inspired Hot Club of San Francisco play 1920s Parisian-influenced jazz for a few minutes, talk about music for a few minutes, answer questions, then play some more. Kirk says he’s trying to think of a better word than “workshops.”
Meanwhile, uncemented word choices don’t do anything to dilute the two-way buzz of appreciation between audiences and artists. People engaged in lively chats with watercolor painter Emily Silver at her recent reception, and artists and performers say they’re happy for a chance to talk directly to individuals at a small venue.
“The thing that we’re hearing a lot lately,” Kirk says, “is, ‘Well, if the Arts Council is doing it, it must be pretty good. Let’s go check it out.'”
Coming up next on the bill are West African multi-instrumentalists Habib Koité and Bamada, followed by Eastern European sound fusers Harmonia and legendary Chicago theater troupe The Second City. The gallery, over the next few months, will host an exhibition of Japanese ceremonial gift covers; various artworks and items by Montana/Idaho artist Theodore Waddell; and Reno photographer Philippe Mazzaud’s surreal, large-scale nightscapes.
Kirk and Valerie do a lot of legwork to stay informed about the wider cultural scene, including making an annual pilgrimage to New York City for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters’ month-long performing arts festival. They profess a concern for helping demystify the sometimes oblique world of art and for providing the public with genuine, direct experiences with the arts. Kirk’s CD and book reviews in Neon (the Nevada Arts Council’s semi-annual arts newspaper, of which he is the editor) back up this assertion by revealing a keen appreciation for and close attention to creative effort coming from many corners.
Kirk and Valerie and the board are seeing their efforts paying off in tangible ways. They’ve just received almost $200,000 from national preservation organization Save America’s Treasures, which they’ll use to continue renovations on the building.
In April, they’ll be able to take a few minutes away from researching and planning events to accept the Governors Arts Award for Service to the Arts. It’s an award given annually to a handful of individuals and organizations the Nevada Arts Council chooses to recognize for enhancing the arts in Nevada.
But then it’ll be back to the grindstone. As Kirk and Valerie clean up and haul boxes to the car after an art reception, it’s at first a little surprising that they’re not delegating the dirty work. On second thought, that’s just part of the job, and they do what they need to do to get it done.
The state Arts Council’s Web site says the Oats Park Arts Center has been called the "finest small performing arts facility in Nevada." Given that Kirk, Valerie and the board stay committed to local interests without being provincial and continue to cultivate a taste for the global while remaining accessible, it’s more like they’re setting the gold standard for arts centers everywhere.